How do we bridge the gap between growing cities and finite resources?

Jeremy Proville

Viewed through the lens of science, the natural world, from atoms to solar systems, is a realm of beautiful regularity and repeating patterns. To some extent this even holds true for human societies, with all their complexity.

Take, for example, the paradigmatic human activity – city building. Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and his group have done some fascinating work to show some ways that cities are remarkably like naturally occurring organisms. Listen to West summarize this concept and his research in a recent short interview piece on THNKR, or in a longer presentation on TED.

One particularly interesting aspect of West’s work has to do with economies of scale.  A city that doubles in size it will become more efficient. For example, when a city grows by 100%, per-capita wealth, educational levels, police coverage and other measures will increase by 115%. Unfortunately, the same thing occurs with negative trends, such as the crime rate, AIDS and flu cases and environmental degradation.  In addition, a city that doubles in size produces more than double the waste. This suggests that urbanization may not be a solution to living sustainably.

West also highlights the ways in which cities and natural organisms differ. In nature the rule is so-called sigmoidal growth. That is, an organism will experience exponential growth at the start, which will gradually slow until growth stops entirely. That’s very different from the economic and infrastructural growth in cities, which typically exhibit a superlinear growth pattern. That means that their rate of growth continually increases as time goes on.

An obvious potential problem with this type of growth is it can lead to a collapse, once a limit (say, finite water or food resources) is exceeded. But West’s research group shows that innovation has enabled humans to push back the boundaries set by resource limits and prolong continuous growth.

Click on the image or arrows below to see an animation that visualizes the process.

West’s research raises some crucial questions for the global community, if we are to solve problems like climate change and depletion of natural resources. Will innovation allow us to extend our environmental limits forever? And is that something humanity should wish for, given the implications endless growth has for the natural world?

Many of EDF’s projects seek ways to create signals and policies that will foster innovation and allow us to extend the finite resources we have. Some examples of this include our ongoing work in developing Smart Grids, promoting Catch Shares and sustainable fishing, as well as implementing Habitat Exchanges. Executed correctly, such projects should go a long way in pushing us along towards a resource-efficient future. And that’s a pattern worth repeating.